King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

A head appeared, teeth bared in panic and rage, a man swung himself over the parapet, beside himself with the honor of success, desperate to make a lodgement on the walls. Brand measured him, lifted his axe “Battle-troll,” and struck once, splitting helmet and skull. He stepped back, waving to the crossbowman and guardsman. One shot, the other pushed, the ladder fell with its load of heavy-armed men into the growing pile below. Brand looked at the man he had killed, his equipment, his armor, such of his face as the axe had left.

“A Frank,” he muttered. “And a rich one.” He removed the dead man’s purse from his belt, and faced down the cross-bowman’s automatic glower. “Don’t look like that, it all gets divided up in the end, fair shares, that’s hermannalög, warriors’ law. But I didn’t let him up to take his money.”

“What did you let him up for?” asked the surly crossbowman.

“I wanted to see who he was. And who he wasn’t. And what he wasn’t was one of those German monk bastards, never have a penny on them.”

“What’s that mean, then?”

“Means the Emperor isn’t really trying. Just seeing if we’re a pushover or not.”

Ignoring the cheers of success from Jews and Northerners, guards and citizens alike seeing their enemies fall back in disorder, Brand shouldered his way along the walls, wondering where the real attack might come from.

Down the river-bed, as he had expected. For a day and a half after the failure of the first, almost perfunctory assault, onagers had hurled stones unavailingly against the walls, sometimes skimming over to cause broken tiles and shattered windows in the houses of the city, but bringing no threat to the defenders. Then, as the pace of the bombardment increased, a watcher saw a wall of shields advancing slowly down the dried-up riverbed that ran through the heart of Septimania. Not shields, in fact, but mantlets: heavy wooden frames that took two men to carry, proof against breast-bows, crossbows, even lobbed stones. A mule-stone would shatter one, and the men behind it, but there were no mules on the walls, too hard to train down. The mantlets inched forward, and after a while Brand, called from his command post, could see gangs furiously hurling stones and the rubble of the winter floods out of the center channel. Behind the mantlets, and following down the cleared center line, he could see another armored structure crawling. A wave ordered fire-arrows launched against it. They struck and fizzled on wet bull-hides. The structure crawled nearer.

“You see a thing like that before?” said Malachi to his giant colleague, in the fractured Arabic which was all that he could say and Brand understand.


“What is it?”

“A ram.” Brand used the Norse word murrbrjotr, wall-breaker, backed with gestures.

“What we do?”

Carefully gauging the path of the approaching object with his eye, Brand ordered a gang to begin cutting away a section of stone from the bridgeway on the opposite side of the attack. They cut it away in one section, taking care not to break the mortar apart. An hour’s work with chisels and picks and a mass of stone poised on the edge of the twenty-foot drop to the riverbed below. Thoughtfully, Brand supervised the setting of a massive iron ring into the top of the severed block, had men drag up the biggest iron chain the dockyard could supply. He noosed it, spread the noose wide with a wooden rod on a thin line. There was plenty of time. The mantlets crept closer, the ram followed them, both under a steady rain of rocks from the pull-throwers on the walls. Cheers rose as broken mantlets were withdrawn, from time to time an unwary or unlucky attacker caught stone or arrow, was left broken or bleeding in the channel. None of that made any difference. Behind the iron grid two of Cwicca’s catapult gangs slowly trained round the sights of their twist-shooters, now facing the ram and the mantlets through the iron grid at unmissable range. Brand leaned over the rear battlement, careful not to touch the mass of stone swaying on the levers jammed beneath it, waved them into immobility.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry